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Why iStockphoto embraced Google's Gears

Better performance and more revenue lead one Web site to begin supporting a generally overlooked Google plug-in. Also: Internet Explorer 6 usage drags on.

iStockphoto's Kelly Thompson
iStockphoto's Kelly Thompson Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google's Gears technology may not have caught on widely in the world of Web programming, but operators of the iStockphoto photo sales site have become believers.

Among other things, Gears enables browsers to store data on a local computer, which most notably means that Web applications can be adapted to work even while offline. But for iStockphoto's purposes, it primarily means better performance for people using the site and secondarily lower operating costs for the Getty Images photo sales subsidiary.

"We're not requiring anyone to install Google Gears," the company said on an explanatory Web site. "If you do install Google Gears, though, iStock will work much faster."

Google launched the open-source Gears software in 2007, but so far, the sites that use it--among them Gmail, Google Reader, WordPress, and MySpace--are the exception rather than the rule.

Speed and money
The main motivation for the change was getting a faster site, which benefits iStockphoto's financial results, said Kelly Thompson, iStockphoto's chief operating officer.

"It was 95 percent performance and end-user experience, but let's face it: if I can get more pictures pumped out faster, with more searches, we sell more," Thompson said. "Cutting down a page load time for a user is more valuable to me than the money I'll save on bandwidth."

The company adopted Gears with no prompting from Google, he added. "We did this on our own," with Web programmers jumping on the project because "it's sexy for them to work on it."

iStockphoto activated its Gears support September 30, Thompson said. In the first 16 days of use, Gears saved the company from paying for the transfer of 132GB of data over the network and lightened its Web servers by 8.7 million communication requests--and that's with only 19,000 Gears-installed users, a "tiny portion of our traffic," he said. Those without Gears benefit, too, since iStock's Web servers are unburdened somewhat by those who do use it.

The technology works by locally storing various Web page ingredients--photo thumbnails, JavaScript program code, Cascading Style Sheet formatting files, for example. Older files are flushed periodically so the users' hard drives don't get too cluttered.

"It's a pretty basic implementation right now: the second time a user sees any image or requests a JavaScript file, it loads instantly," Thompson said. One of his developers described it as "the opposite of a drug dealer: the first hit isn't free, (but) every subsequent hit is."

Google is trying to propagate Gears, which is available as a browser plug-in. In a more aggressive move, it built Gears into its Chrome browser. And in the longer term, the HTML5 standard under development reproduces the local storage abilities of Gears, a move that stands to spread the technology more widely.

HTML5 good, IE 6 bad
Thompson is a fan of another HTML5 technology: built-in video. iStock licenses video content, as well as photos and other content, and currently streams it with Adobe Systems' Flash technology.

"We'd love to be able to ditch Flash on the video side, but it's probably a ways out," Thompson said, citing widespread use of Internet Explorer.

IE is widely loathed among Web developers for its slow performance and lack of standards compliance, and even Microsoft wishes that people would upgrade from IE 6, but it's still the single most widely used browser out there, even though Microsoft released it in 2001, just before Windows XP arrived. Microsoft released IE 7 in 2006, and it tried to improve standards compliance and security with the release of IE 8 this March.

People are gradually shifting away from IE 6, but not fast enough for Thompson's taste--or plans.

"We announced we'd drop official support for IE 6 in 2010 back at the beginning of the year. I'm not sure we're going to be able to it: the percentage of users is dropping--just not quite fast enough," he said.

From August 2009 to September 2009, Internet Explorer lost a bit of usage share, compared to rival browsers.
From August (top) to September (below), Internet Explorer lost a bit of usage share, compared with rival browsers. Net Applications

According to Net Applications statistics, IE 6 is used by 24.4 percent of people on the Web today, followed by IE 7, IE 8, Firefox 3.5, and Firefox 3, in descending order of popularity. Overall, IE has 65.7 percent share of usage.

iStockphoto has more early adopters in its population and therefore different browser preferences. The top five browsers on the site are Firefox, with 37.8 percent; IE, with 34.4 percent; Apple's Safari, with 22.3 percent; Google's Chrome, with 3.4 percent; and Opera, with 1.7 percent.

Among iStockphoto's IE traffic, the majority of people use version 7, but the tide is turning.

"We've seen an almost 2 percent migration of (IE) 6 to 8 in the last 60 days alone. We're hoping Windows 7 will push it even more quickly," Thompson said. "For us, even though it's a shrinking percentage, it still represents over 1 million visits per month, so I can't cut them off at the knees."

"I think we're dominated by geeks, designers, and small businesses, all who move more quickly than the enterprise--not to mention we're 35 percent Mac, with the iPhone about to overtake Linux for third place" among operating systems, Thompson said.